Online dating has become increasingly popular in recent years, but really boomed during the pandemic as meeting in person became more difficult. 

However, as more people turn to apps and online forums to find love, sadly the number of cases of romance fraud also increases.

There were 7,257 cases of romance fraud reported to UK finance between January 2020 and June 2022, with more than £65m stolen. While these figures alone are huge, the reality is that the number of romance fraud cases is likely to be a lot higher as it’s a crime that often goes unreported, with victims often feeling embarrassed or ashamed to admit what’s happened to them.

Here we explain what romance fraud is, how to spot the warning signs, and what you can do to protect yourself.

What is romance fraud?

Romance fraud, as the name suggests, is a type of scam where fraudsters develop fake romantic relationships with people, both online and in person, with the aim of either stealing their money or personal information.

While the number of cases is pretty evenly spread across all age groups, according to research by TSB Bank, the age group that is most susceptible to losing the largest sums through romance fraud is those aged between 51 and 65. This age group accounts for 46% of the total financial losses, and the over-65s account for a further 26%. The average victim lost around £10,000.

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How do romance fraudsters extort money?

Romance fraudsters may spend weeks, months, or even years, wooing an unsuspecting victim and convincing them they are in a real relationship. TSB bank suggests that the average relationship with a scammer will last around 53 days.

Once they’ve gained the trust of their victim, the fraudster will create a scenario where they need a large sum of money, for example, they might claim they need to pay for medical treatment or to travel to see an unwell relative and will use their relationship along with manipulative and coercive language to pressure them into giving them cash. At the moment a large number of scammers (60%) are asking for money to help with bills or daily living, according to TSB bank.

Temporary Detective Chief Superintendent Matt Bradford, from the City of London Police, said “These criminals will ask for money for a variety of emotive reasons and as the emotional relationship has already been formed, victims often transfer money without a second thought.”

This means that when the fraudster inevitably disappears with the money, the victim feels the double-edged sting of both losing a large sum of money and the emotional betrayal of someone they thought they knew or even loved. This can make it particularly hard for people to talk about and is one of the biggest reasons that it often goes unreported.

How to spot a romance scam

The trickiest part of romance scams is that they share a number of similarities to a whirlwind romance. Fraudsters will often ‘love bomb’ their victims, showering them with affection, attention, adoring messages, and even gifts to try and sweep them off their feet, all with the aim of influencing them to hand over their money and information.

It can be hard to spot the signs, but if you or a loved one is dating someone online, there are a few red flags to look out for:

  • They message you out of the blue on social media, perhaps quoting mutual friends or that they felt they had to message you.
  • They don’t want to talk on dating websites, preferring to move your conversations to WhatsApp, text or phone calls soon after you start talking to each other.
  • They ask you a lot of questions about yourself and offer very little information about themselves in return.
  • Things they tell you don’t add up, for example, they might claim to have a university education but frequently make obvious grammatical mistakes.
  • They claim they’ve fallen in love with you very quickly, possibly based on very few conversations.
  • They’re hesitant to video call or share photos of themselves or their day-to-day lives.
  • They avoid meeting in person or they might arrange times and places to meet only to cancel last minute or come up with excuses time after time.
  • They encourage you to keep your relationship a secret.
  • Their lives seem to be full of sad stories and melodrama. They may tell you of their struggles with financial situations, for example, that they have been left a large inheritance, but can’t access their funds yet, or that they or a close family member has an ongoing illness.

Of course, any and all of these things might be legitimate, but it’s important to err on the side of caution.

How to protect yourself or loved ones from romance scams

It may sound like online dating isn’t safe, but as long as you keep your wits about you, you can sit back and enjoy the experience. Many people meet their partners for life this way. There are some key things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones from romance scams:

Use reputable dating sites

If you match with a scammer online, one of the most common things they are likely to do is ask you to take your conversations off the site and talk via text, WhatsApp or phone call, so there isn’t a trace of them asking for money on the site.

A number of the larger UK dating sites such as Eharmony and Plenty of Fish have safe messaging features to protect users, which scan messages for certain trigger terms that flag potential scammers. The bigger platforms also usually have reporting functions, making it more likely that scammers will be kicked out, so you might have more protection by staying on the site.

Talk to friends and family about dating

Talking about relationships, or online dating can feel uncomfortable, but it can be a big help in spotting fraudsters. TSB bank’s director of fraud prevention, Paul Davis said: “Discussing relationships can be embarrassing – but it can make all the difference when it comes to fraud. Get friendly, impartial advice about your online connection from someone close by, who can help you spot holes in a dating site user’s story that you hadn’t thought of yourself.”

Don’t share personal information online

It may seem innocent if someone asks you when you were born, but giving people personal information online, like your date of birth, is never a good idea. People can steal this information and then use it to impersonate you or commit fraud, so keep personal details such as full name, address, date of birth etc. to yourself until you’re sure you can trust someone and even then, do it in person.

Never send or receive money to anyone you meet online

It may seem obvious, but never send or accept money from someone you’ve met online, and whatever you do, don’t share your financial information with anyone you don’t really know. 

Romance scammers will often come up with some very convincing stories of why they need you to send them money and it will usually come with time restraints that create a sense of urgency. For example, they may say that they’ve had an accident while away on holiday and need help covering the medical costs. If you’re feeling pressured into paying anyone any amount of money, it could be romance fraud.

Never take out a loan so you can lend someone money

Fraudsters may ask you to do all manner of things to get the money they want from you, including taking out credit cards and loans to help them get your money. If you take out a loan, only you are responsible for repaying it, so it won’t matter if you didn’t use the money, you’ll be the one left with the debt.

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Trust your instincts

If anything about the person you’re talking to feels wrong, it probably is, so be cautious. You’re not under any obligation to anyone, so only talk to people you feel comfortable with and remember that you can walk away at any time you like.

Protecting others from romance fraud

It can be hard to see the truth of romance fraud if you’re the one experiencing it, so if you have family or friends who are online dating and you’re worried that they’re being scammed, it might be worth doing the following:

  • Talk to them about their security settings on social media – they may not know that they are sharing more information than they should be. It also makes sense to limit who can see their posts.
  • Stay in the loop about their dating activities – scammers will often encourage their victims to keep their relationship a secret, so ask your loved ones about their dating life.
  • Discuss romance fraud – If this feels difficult, there are lots of TV shows about impersonation and relationship fraud at the moment, including The Tinder Swindler and Inventing Anna which could help you open up the conversation.
  • Encourage them to report what’s happened to Action Fraud if they’ve been scammed.

What to do if you’ve been scammed

It can be really hard to come to terms with the idea that you’ve been scammed by someone you thought cared about you.

However, if you think you’re a victim of romance fraud, it’s really important to report it as soon as possible. 

If someone is asking you for money or personal information on a dating site, you should let the platform immediately so they can prevent the fraudster from targeting anyone else.

If you’ve already handed over money and you live in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, you should report it to Action Fraud, which is the UK’s national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime. You can report it via their website or you can call 0300 123 2040 Monday to Friday 8am – 8pm.

If you live in Scotland, you can report romance fraud directly to the police by calling 101.

Romance fraud is unfortunately just one type of scam, our article Types of scam and how to avoid them outlines other kinds and explains what to watch out for.

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